November 6, 2009

Teacher gives ‘wings’ to effort to bring computers to African schools

With her hand on a computer mouse, Indianapolis volunteer Anne Lerums provides computer instruction for teachers in a school in the West African country of Senegal. (Submitted photo)

With her hand on a computer mouse, Indianapolis volunteer Anne Lerums provides computer instruction for teachers in a school in the West African country of Senegal. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Looking back, Kathleen Lattimer never imagined how the journey would change her life so dramatically—or give her the opportunity to affect so many people.

When she visited Senegal in 1998, she came as a high school French teacher who wanted to get a close look at the French-speaking country in West Africa that has a history of democracy and religious, racial and ethnic tolerance.

A member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis, Lattimer never expected that her trip would lead her to adopt a teenager from that country.

She also never thought that she would develop a friendship with a Muslim that would create an interfaith organization in Indianapolis that collects and sends recycled computers and computer equipment to rural schools in Senegal.

Since Lattimer started the organization in 2001, Wings for West Africa has provided computer labs for nearly 100 schools in Senegal. She hopes to collect more equipment during a computer drive at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, 4625 N. Kenwood Ave. in Indianapolis, on Nov. 14-15.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Lattimer says about that trip in 1998.

During that journey, she continually witnessed the obstacles that children in Senegal face concerning their education. During that visit, she also met Habib Diatta, a French teacher in Senegal who wished he could do more for his students. They became friends and formed an alliance intent on changing lives. More than 102,000 students in Senegal have become computer literate through Wings for West Africa, which also trains teachers in information technology.

“I had traveled before, but I was never engaged in the educational process of another country until then,” says Lattimer, who has taught French for 31 years at North Central High School in Indianapolis. “It made me a global teacher. It made me want to create a sense of justice in the world for children who have less of an educational opportunity in life.”

As Wings for West Africa tries to connect people in two continents, the organization also strives to make the world closer from a faith perspective. Computer drives have been held at Catholic parishes and Protestant churches, and there will be one later this fall at a Jewish congregation.

“One of the goals of Wings for West Africa is to build bridges between countries, religions and races,” Lattimer notes. “This reflects the easy diversity found in Senegal itself where Christians and Muslims can be found in the same house, where its black Muslim president is married to a Caucasian Catholic woman. The board members of Wings for West Africa include Catholics, Protestants and a Muslim, Caucasians and a black, Americans and an African.”

The interfaith approach to the environmentally-conscious organization has changed Lattimer’s approach to her faith.

“It drives me to focus on the common beliefs among the religions rather than the differences,” she says. “It has made my faith much more tolerant.”

That change has touched her personal life, too. In 2001, when there was an opening for a French teacher and a soccer coach at Northview Middle School in Indianapolis, Lattimer recommended Diatta. When he was hired for the jobs, Diatta, his wife and their two sons moved to Indianapolis. His family lived in Lattimer’s house as they adjusted to life in the United States.

Then in 2002, when Diatta’s mother died, Lattimer began the process to adopt Diatta’s sister and bring her to the United States. At 60, Lattimer now cares for her 16-year-old daughter, Fatou.

“We’re one big extended family,” Lattimer says.

Those same words describe her view of the world.

“This experience has given me many opportunities to have dialogue with people in my church and my school,” she says. “I’ve tried to be an agent of understanding.

“The ultimate satisfaction for me is trying to make a small difference in the live of children. I just want to make the world a little more just.”

(The computer drive at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish on Nov. 14 will be from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. The drive will continue on Nov. 15 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, visit the Web site

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